University of Wisconsin–Madison

Child Support Policy Research Agreement, September 2012–December 2014

This research agreement between IRP and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (Daniel R. Meyer, Principal Investigator) supports data collection and research related to the child support system. The primary projects and summary descriptions appear below. Related publications and reports will be posted upon completion.

A. Court Record Data Collection

Collections from the Court Record allow us to gather detailed information on a variety of information not currently recorded in the KIDS data system. The collected data will include information on legal custody and physical placement, visitation, and details concerning the specific provisions of each order (for example, child care and child physical placement provisions). Other information collected will include records of deviations from the use of the guidelines and information on returns to court for purposes relating to child placement, child support orders, revision or enforcement of child support, or referral for criminal proceedings for the nonpayment of child support. We will also include the detail of information collected about serial family child support obligations that parents have from prior orders in other cases. In this period, we propose collecting two new cohorts of paternity and divorce cases (Cohorts 29–30), consisting of a random selection of cases petitioning for paternity establishment, the setting of child support or child placement in voluntary acknowledgement paternity cases, and divorce cases in the period from July 2008 through June 2010. We will collect the court history of the approximately 1200 adjudicated paternity cases, 600 voluntary paternity acknowledgment cases, and 1600 divorce cases from court record case files in 21 counties. The number of cases is selected so as to provide enough cases to conduct analysis of individual counties and to be consistent with earlier court record collections. We note that these data would not be ready for analysis until December 2014, so analyses based on these data would be part of another research agreement.

B. Child Support Orders and Child Care Costs

For working parents of young children, child care expenditures can be a substantial proportion of their budgets. This cost is sometimes explicitly addressed by the child support system. When the court orders child support, it may designate which parent is responsible for procuring child care and which parent is responsible for paying for it. In some cases, some or all of the cost of care may be assessed to the noncustodial parent and added into the child support order; in other cases the noncustodial parent may be ordered to pay the child care provider directly, with some or all of the cost subtracted from the child support order. Yet despite the potential importance, we have little systematic information about how child care and child support interact. This analysis begins to fill this gap.

We will use Court Record Data from several recent cohorts to report on how often child care is explicitly referenced, how often orders are increased or decreased for the cost of care, and how often changes in the cost or provision of care appear to be one reason for returns to court. The Court Record includes data on reasons for explicit and/or implicit deviation from child support guidelines, other costs added or subtracted to/from base support, and the purpose of court actions. We also provide basic descriptive data on the kinds of cases in which child care is more likely to be referenced, examining differences across the number and ages of children, incomes levels, and county.

C. Child Support, Physical Placement, and the Contributions of Parents to Child Care Arrangements and Costs

Most parents of young children work for pay—mothers as well as fathers, in families in which parents live together and those in which they do not. This highlights the importance of considering child care and related costs in determining appropriate child support orders. Child support guidelines allow for deviations due to parents’ contributions to the financial costs of child care. However, there is limited information available on the other costs of child care, including transportation to and from child care providers, compatibility of child care schedules with parents’ work schedules, and other important aspects of navigating child care arrangements. How do fathers’ logistical as well as financial contributions, as well as mothers’, shape families’ decisions about and experiences with child care? Do these relationships differ between families in which the parents live together or apart? Finally, in separated families, does child support play a role in access to quality care?

For this project, new data will be collected. First, 31 early childhood education/care sites in Dane County will be selected within geographic clusters (out of 91 possible sites). At each selected site, one 4-year old classroom will be randomly selected. Interviews will be conducted with the 31 directors/administrators about program operations. One parent from each family served by the selected 4-year old classrooms will be asked to complete a survey that includes questions on parents’ employment schedules and other working conditions, family and household composition and other demographic features, and factors shaping family decisions about care arrangements. The survey will also include questions about the availability of formal child support, when appropriate. As a final step, parents from 20 of these families—half of them two-parent families, and half divorced/separated families—will be interviewed in detail about their child care decision-making and experiences, and (in the case of divorced/separated families) the relationship of these decisions to formal child support arrangements.

D. Interactions of the Child Support and Child Welfare Systems

Recent reports completed as part of the research agreement document the relationship between the child support and child welfare systems, and the role of child support in offsetting the costs of out of home care for children in foster care. An ongoing project is providing additional information on best practices and policy options as the department considers new policy related to appropriate referrals for child support for pre-placement resident parents whose children are placed out of home. Drawing from these documented best practices, and from the results of an initial benefit-cost analysis, we propose to work with BCS to identify the most useful policy research focus for the next stage of this project.

We expect this project will include an analysis of the use of the new option in WiSACWIS which allows for referral of one or both parents. This analysis will draw on updated merged administrative data from the child support (KIDS) and child welfare (WiSACWIS) systems to evaluate if and how patterns of child support orders to offset child welfare costs have changed since WiSACWIS changes made it possible to refer either or both parents to child support. We expect to compare recent practice (through 2012) with previous practice documented in earlier reports, documenting variation both over time and across counties.

E. Child Placement Arrangements and Post-divorce Economic Outcomes

Research in Wisconsin has documented dramatic changes in children’s post-divorce placement arrangements. The most recent data show over 45% of divorces involving children result in shared placement, in which the children spend at least 25% of their time with each parent—an increase from 14% of cases in the early 1990s. Placement outcomes differ widely by income, with shared placement ranging from 11% among the lowest-income parents to 67% among those with the highest income. Placement arrangements may have important impacts on economic outcomes, both by altering the degree to which resources are transferred between parents’ households, but also by potentially impacting parents’ employment patterns and their need and eligibility for public assistance. Virtually no research to date has attempted to assess causal impacts of placement arrangements on economic outcomes. This project will address the question of whether and to what extent shared placement leads to different economic outcomes for parents relative to sole mother placement. While growth in shared placement has occurred among virtually all subgroups in Wisconsin, there nonetheless appears to be considerable variation across and even within counties. This variation provides a natural experiment with which to explore the relationship between placement arrangements and economic outcomes. This project will explore how post-divorce economic outcomes of mothers and fathers—including earnings as well as receipt of public benefits such as FoodShare and childcare subsidies—vary according to placement arrangements.

To address the research question, this project will use the Wisconsin Court Record data and linked data from the CARES, Unemployment Insurance, and to the extent it is available, Department of Revenue tax return data, to provide as comprehensive a picture as feasible of parents’ economic circumstances. Differences in the prevalence of shared placement among counties, and potentially among judges within counties, will be leveraged to develop causal models. We tentatively plan to focus on cohorts 24–27 of the Court Record Data.

F. Child Support Receipt and the Quality and Stability of Housing

Prior research has substantiated the importance of regular child support receipt for custodial-mother families’ total income. Consistent receipt of child support payments generally increases the regularity of mothers’ total family income. This report investigates whether the regularity of child support payments is associated with housing stability and quality. A large body of research confirms the importance of housing stability and quality for health and educational outcomes for families, but the link between regularity of child support payments, an increasingly important income stream, and housing stability and quality have not been examined. This project would examine the relationship between the regularity of child support and housing stability for a broad sample, and will provide more detail on this relationship for a subsample of custodial-parent families who use SNAP (since information on housing costs is available for them).

Our primary data for this project is from KIDS, which provides information on the consistency and stability of child support payments and addresses for custodial-parent families. We will geo-code these KIDS address records to measure both the frequency and distance of moves, and analyses will examine the relationship between the consistency and stability of child support and two measures of housing stability, the number of moves and the distances between moves. Moreover, for a subsample of SNAP participating households, housing quality, as proxied by reported rental cost and the median costs of owner-occupied homes by county of residence, could also be measured. For this subsample, analyses will consider the relationship between the consistency and stability of child support payments and the cost of housing. This project would require additional data analysis to be able to clean and geo-code addresses, and to confirm the quality of SNAP rental data. The required data analysis would be completed in advance of the submission of the research plan, which would describe any proposed modifications in light of any data issues.

G. Are Complex Families Becoming More Common?

In earlier research, we documented high levels of complex families, especially among parents not married at the time of their child’s birth: Over two-thirds of first-born nonmarital children born in 1997 had half-siblings (i.e. at least one of their parents had children with another partner) by the time they were 10 years old. The previous research has followed a single group of children through time, so it does not provide information on whether this phenomenon is increasing or decreasing over time. In this project we will consider the families of first-born nonmarital children born in 1997, 2002 and 2007, and trace the evolution of family complexity over the next 5 years (through 2002, 2007 and 2012).

Data for this project come from KIDS, with records merged so that the half-siblings of children can be identified. We also incorporate data on TANF and SNAP participation from CARES and we intend to incorporate data from the Department of Corrections on incarceration in state prisons. For children in the three successive cohorts (born in 1997, 2002 and 2007), we will compare patterns of family complexity and measure whether the economic and demographic characteristics of complicated and “simple” families have changed over time.

H. Characteristics of Child Support Arrears in Wisconsin Compared with Other States

Despite the increasingly strengthened and routinized child support enforcement efforts over the past decades, the amount of unpaid child support remains high; $111.3 nationally as of the end of 2011. To better manage child support arrears, we need to better understand the distribution of these arrears, as well as the characteristics of obligors who owe different amounts. One of the few studies to specifically examine child support arrears is a 2007 Urban Institute report by Sorensen, Sousa, and Schaner, that analyses child support arrears in nine large states. This project will apply the framework developed in that study to recent Wisconsin data in order to get detailed information about the level and distribution of child support arrears in Wisconsin, and to compare it with the nine large states in the 2007 study.

I. Guidelines for Shared Time Cases

This report will review guidelines for shared time cases in other states, highlighting the key alternatives and related considerations. Based on previous literature and document review, the report will discuss the key parameters of alternative guidelines, including alternatives to overnights as a primary measure. Based on this review, and in consultation with the Wisconsin Bureau of Child Support, we will also conduct interviews with child support and court personnel in selected states regarding advantages and challenges encountered in implementing alternative guidelines for shared time cases.